Labor/union history tainted by racism

Photo courtesy of Workers World. “Black UAW workers on strike”

This article first published 9/6/21 by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

UAW toed the color line to its own detriment

Never have I been so proud to be my father’s son than at his wake on a sunless, snowy midwinter afternoon 10 years ago. According to family lore, my father was unemployed on the day I was born in 1965 but found work at the Indianapolis Chrysler Foundry weeks later.

As my father told the story, he walked into the plant on his first day and saw a slave ship of Black men shackled—if only figuratively—to a soul-killing, back-breaking assembly line, and decided on the spot that was not the life for him.

And so he would go on to enroll in the training courses for a millwright’s position, eventually becoming the first African American skilled tradesman at Indianapolis Chrysler. I have often boasted of my father’s initiative in challenging the White bosses’ notion of what was rightfully his.

But as his Black co-workers filed by at the funeral home that wintry day, it was his grace that they spoke of, recalling the many times my old man encouraged them to pursue the technical bona fides that would allow them to work in the higher-paying, and less physically demanding skilled trade positions.

“Now look, n—-,” one of his coworkers recalled my father saying with a broad grin on his face, “if I can do it, you know they’ll let anybody do it.”

But not really. My old man’s self-deprecating humor notwithstanding, the top jobs at Chrysler were, at the time of my father’s hiring, reserved for the Whitest and not the best—thanks to a clause in the union contract that locked Black workers in de facto segregated job classifications.

According to the labor historian Herbert Hill, this clause, negotiated by the United Auto Workers and Detroit’s Big Three auto manufacturers—General Motors, the Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler—was in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

By the time my father landed a job at Chrysler, African Americans accounted for seven-tenths of one percent of the skilled labor force at the Big Three’s auto plants, while making up 42.3% of the entire workforce, according to data compiled by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Labor Day’s annual homage to the American worker is as good an opportunity as any to reflect on both the towering triumphs and embarrassing failures of a trade union movement that has time and time again betrayed its own membership by agreeing to backroom deals that aid and abet corporations in discriminating against the Black rank-and-file.

Beginning in 1935 at the nadir of the Great Depression when the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, rejected the American Federation of Labor’s tradition of segregated locals and accelerating with the country’s entry into World War II, labor unions became a force to be reckoned with in American public life. By 1975, more than one in three workers belonged to a union, and employees pocketed more than half of Gross Domestic Product, an all-time high.

But big business planted the seeds for its comeback by pushing Congress to override President Truman’s veto and pass the Taft-Hartley bill in 1947, limiting employees’ ability to strike, and perhaps most importantly, requiring labor leaders to oust the most militant workers, Communists, and African Americans.

Among the questions put to Blacks suspected of collaborating with Reds (Communists) were: “Have you ever had dinner with a mixed group?” and “Have you ever danced with a White girl?”

White employees were asked whether they had ever entertained Blacks as guests and White witnesses were asked, “Have you had any conversations that would lead you to believe [the accused) is rather advanced in his thinking on racial matters?”

No labor leader expelled progressive unionists with more enthusiasm than the UAW’s Walter Reuther, who would be the only non-Black invited to speak at the March on Washington in 1963.

In an effort to consolidate Reuther’s base of Polish, Hungarian, German, and other White ethnics, the UAW and the National Maritime Union combined to purge 11 unions, representing nearly a million workers, from the CIO, over a two-year period beginning in 1949. When Black autoworkers demanded an African American union vice president as was customary in CIO unions, Reuther refused, calling such a move “reverse racism.”

Moreover, contracts between the UAW and the industry prohibited work stoppages of any kind and Reuther meekly acquiesced to company demands such as compulsory overtime, which was far cheaper than hiring additional workers but routinely required employees to work 12 hours a day for six or even seven days a week in noisy, unsafe factories.

For their part, the Big Three agreed to collect union dues directly from the workers’ paychecks, insulating the UAW from dissatisfied employees who might be tempted to withhold their dues payments.

Coupled with his endorsement of Jim Crow practices on the shop floor, Reuther’s no-strike pledge left the ineffective grievance process as the auto workers’ only recourse. By 1970, there were 250,000 written grievances at General Motors alone or one for every two workers employed in production.

My father was injured badly in an on-the-job accident when I was 13, as I recall, and it was around that time when my father told me he had been denied a promotion despite the highest score on a qualifying examination.

When he asked a White supervisor about the promotion weeks later, he was told: “Now Jeter, if I give the job to an—–, we’ll both get fired.”

That gibes with what one White autoworker told filmmakers in the 1973 documentary “Finally Got the News”:

“I took three tests, now one of the math tests I took I didn’t do too well on. The fella who was running the tests said ‘well, I tell you what, you go home and study up on this a little bit and come back and see me in a week.’ I know G-damn well he wasn’t going to tell that to any Colored boy.”

At war with itself for the better part of 70 years, organized labor in the U.S. is virtually obsolete. Only one in 10 workers belong to a union, and wages today account for just 43% of GDP.

Reuther died in a 1970 plane crash but in the last year of his life, African American autoworkers grew so disgruntled that they would hoist placards at wildcat strikes that asserted that UAW stood for “U Ain’t White.”

July job report: jobs are plentiful but the wages are few

This article first published 8/13/21 by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

There was good news and bad news in the July jobs report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday. The good news is that employers added nearly one million jobs to their payrolls for the month; the bad news is that most of the jobs are bad.

It is a classic tale of two worlds. The addition of 943,000 jobs to nonfarm payrolls in July exceeded economists’ expectations by almost 75,000 jobs and represented the largest monthly increase in nearly a year.

In a Friday press conference, President Biden asserted that the jobs report was evidence that his administration had the U.S. economy on the right track. “What we’re doing is working,” he said.

Employees, on the other hand, are not impressed, African Americans least of all. Of the 943,000 jobs created in July, 380,000 were in the hospitality sector, where wages are notoriously low, and employers are often exempted from federal minimum wage laws, allowing them to pay as little as $2.13-per-hour to bartenders and wait staff who receive tips.

Devastated by the pandemic, bars and restaurants began reopening in the spring and since May, have accounted for 1.1 million new jobs, or 40% of all job growth nationwide.

That mirrors larger macroeconomic trends dating back to the Reagan White House, with each successive administration pursuing monetary, labor, tax and trade policies that discouraged capital investment in the manufacturing sector and its heavily unionized workforce.

What was once the most industrialized country in the world is now home to more maids, short-order cooks, and Amazon customer service reps than assembly-line workers.

Just a glance at the job openings in the Twin Cities proves the point: food servers, housekeepers, and customer service reps dominate the online help wanted ads, the vast majority of which pay less than $20-per-hour.

“People have to work three and four jobs to be able to pay the rent and eat,” said 66-year-old Lee Patterson, who is African American and an activist for affordable housing in Baltimore. Noting that the Amazon warehouse in the city pays most of its 2,300 employees an hourly wage of about $15-an-hour, Patterson says a worker fortunate to get 40 hours per week is going to clear $1,800-a-month after federal, state, and local taxes, leaving just enough to pay rent, food, and utilities.

“It’s hard to find a one-bedroom apartment in the city for less than $1,200 -a-month these days,” said Patterson. “You certainly won’t be able to afford a car, new or used, let alone put gas in it.”

Patterson’s math is consistent with the findings of a new monthly indicator that tracks the quality of jobs and not just the quantity. The US Private Sector Job Quality Index—or JQI—measures the ratio of what the researchers call “high-quality” versus “low-quality” jobs, based on whether the job pays more or less than the average income.

A reading of 100 means that there are equal numbers of the two groups, while anything less implies relatively lower-quality jobs. From a peak of about 95 in 1990, the JQI stood at about 82 last month, which means that the economy is churning out roughly 82 jobs that pay decently, for every 100 that don’t.

Poor quality jobs, especially in the fast-food industry, are attracting a younger workforce with little job experience and fewer options. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 dropped below 10% for the first time since 1956.

While the mainstream media has celebrated this development as positive, there is growing evidence that stressful workplace conditions in the industry are beginning to impact the number of employees willing to work so hard for so little pay.

Last month, the entire staff of a Burger King in Lincoln, Nebraska, walked off the job after posting a sign that read “We all quit” and “Sorry for the inconvenience.” Similarly, Sophia Cargill, the African American general manager in training at a Wendy’s restaurant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, recorded a White assistant manager named Michael yelling insults at her and repeatedly calling her a b—-.

When Cargill reported the incident, company executives initially suspended her for two weeks without pay, although when the videotape of the incident went viral, the company fired the White assistant manager and offered Cargill her job back; on social media she said she had declined.

In fact, workers have been leaving jobs in restaurants, bars, and hotels at the highest rate in decades. Nearly 5% of the industry’s workforce has quit their job each month of this year, including 706,000 fast-food employees in May alone.

More than a million jobs in the sector remain unfilled, forcing employers to raise wages. Brands such as Chipotle, Olive Garden, White Castle, even McDonald’s, are now offering entry-level pay between $11 and $17 an hour, paying people just to show up for interviews, adding signing bonuses, and recruiting young workers on TikTok.

In May of this year, the average hourly pay for nonmanagers in the hospitality industry surpassed $15 for the first time in May.

Still, that is not enough for everyone. While surveys indicate that low wages are the most common reason cited by employees for quitting their jobs, in one recent survey, more than half of hospitality workers who’ve quit their jobs said that the workplace was so stressful that no amount of pay would get them to return.

Said Patterson: “Man, most of these jobs don’t pay enough for you to buy toilet paper.”